Sermon preached by Rev’d Ernest Pettengell, Chaplain of Ripon College Cuddesdon, at St Giles’ Horspath on 1st July.
Text; ‘Blest are the pure in heart for they shall see God!’
“In the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Intro:– As no doubt others in this series on the Beatitudes have
already told you; Blessed is another word for happy.
But neither the Bible or Jesus are that interested in happiness per se.
It is happiness found in and through God that matters here.
In other words, Jesus is not talking about general happiness, which is so often bound up with our own ego desires, but a deep happiness which is a gift from God, and which is best described as contentment, peace, (which Jesus said could not be taken from us), and fulfilment;
All of which come from God, as by grace we grow in our love for Him.
The happiness that Jesus is speaking about is happiness that occasionally springs up within us when we are grabbed by some thought, or feeling, or awareness of the presence or love of God – or indeed, our love for him.
Which leads us into the sixth beatitude within our series from Jesus’s sermon on the Mount.
The problem of truly understanding the Beatitudes is that they are virtually one liners and have no context by which to assess them.
But taken at its face value this sixth beatitude seems to me to be the most awesome Beatitude of them all!
Jesus says; “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
How awesome is that; to be given the hope of actually seeing God!
But how can we do that? In what way can we see God, when the Bible, – both Old and New Testaments – tell us that if we see God full on, then his glory will be too great for us to bear!
So we are presented with two important questions by this beatitude.
First; What does it mean to be pure in heart?
And secondly; How is it possible to see God? In what form can we possibly experience Him?
Dev. So what does being pure in heart look like?
Of course, being British, when we think of purity, our thoughts immediately turn to sex. We think of all the lascivious thoughts that assail us in the course of our days. So there is not too much purity there – and surely not enough to entice God into our line of vision. Or so we think!
But of course God knows what people are like, after all, he did create us to be who we are: lascivious thoughts and all;
But there is that part in the British religious character which thinks that God does not love us unless we are good.
Unless we can somehow purify our thoughts and actions and be really good boys and girls!
That we only have God when we are good and lose God when we are bad.
But God it is not to be ‘had’ or ‘lost’.
God doesn’t practice our childish petulance, inconsistency, and pettiness; You know; I am not talking to you anymore! You are just not what I want you to be for me!
The truth is, that God loves us not because we are good, but because He is good! And that makes all the difference!
It has been truly said, I believe, that when we can trust that God loves us as much when we are loveable and good as when we are at our most vile and malevolent, then we will really begin to live the spiritual life.
So we need to look deeper into this question of being pure in heart.
And when we do, we find that whatever the British moral sense runs to, for God there are far far more important issues of purity that have the priority.
What Jesus is saying to us in this beatitude is that it is the purity of an unrestricted loving relationship with God which is of first importance.
The theologian Soren Kirkagard, commenting on this beatitude writes;- ‘purity of heart is being obsessed by only one thing – and that one thing is love for God!’
In other words, God must come first, last, and all stations in between for us.
It is the one thing necessary, that can open us to God, and allow us to ‘see’ him.
So Kirkagard puts purity of heart in a nutshell when he tells us that it is a loving obsession for God.
But, living in a cool climate like ours, we Brits are also renowned for being cool with our religion too.
I well remember the parents of one of my friends at school telling me that I should not become too religious.
But yet we all know how obsessive we become when we fall in love with someone.
They take up our every waking thought; to think of them stirs our heart, and gives us an inner joy and pleasure which cannot be accurately described in words.
We see this obsession in Jesus’ relationship with his heavenly Father; that his life is to do the will of the father; because, being there for the father is meat and drink for him.
And Jesus tells us in this Beatitude that we need to grow this kind of love for God too.
And should we be surprised by this? Remember the first of the two Primary Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart. and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment.
Dev. And so, how do we grow this kind of love?
Well, the first and last thing to realize, is that love for God is always a gift, given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Any love we could possibly summon up is never going to do.
Indeed, as one early Christian writer tells us – “We are ‘takers’ from God before we can ever be ‘givers’. And that is true of all gifts given to us by God.
Without first being given, we have nothing to give!
Which echoes St John in his first Epistle, when he tells us that ‘we love God because he first loved us!’
Dev. You are here this morning.
And it would be very interesting if you asked yourself why am I here?
I suspect that for many of us, our answer, (or more probably answers ), would surprise us by their vagueness. And possibly, more than a few of us, would be ‘hard put’ to give a clear reply.
+ But somewhere in it all, there will be a small Flame of desire for God; which we sense more than we see.
+ I like to think of it as an obscure awareness of God’s Presence.
+ An inchoate and vague ‘knowing’, that God is there, and I can’t get away from that gut awareness.
+ God is in me, dancing obscurely with my Soul, and I can’t prove it, but somehow I just know it!
In fact, one idea I like from a modern spiritual writer, is that our Soul is God in us, and it is much larger than we are – in fact, we just go along for the ride – the real us is our Soul, which cannot be hurt or damaged because it is always in communion with God.
As another writer has said; “We are not a Body with a soul but a Soul which has a body!
And thoughts like these are enough to bring me here this morning, and during my days, to turn, and turn, and return, to thinking about, and wanting to be a part of, God and Jesus Christ.
And what Jesus is implying in this Beatitude is that we need to fan that flame of love, and to deliberately grow our awareness of God, (who is around us, and so deeply embedded within us), that it is as if we are physically joined at the hip to Him.
As St Paul reminds us in a number of places in his epistles; “we live in Christ and Christ lives in us.”
And St John, in his Gospel, keeps saying that, ad infinitum, about Jesus and the heavenly Father.
As St Paul again says, this time to the pagans at Athens, (quoting one of their own philosophers), “In God we live and move and have our being!”
And as with clear intent, and a new consciousness, we seek a new awareness of God’s presence within and around us, so Jesus promises us that we will begin to ‘see’ God’s Presence with us and within us.
Dev. So how do we nurture this loving obsession for God?
At its simplest, we just ‘think’ of God. For at any moment that we think of God, we are drawn by Him more closely into his Presence.
So being here today in church nurtures our love for God, as we put ourselves in the way of God, and are surrendering to whatever he wishes to do and say to us this morning.
The spiritual giants of early Christianity recognized that the ground and fertilizer needed in which to grow our love for God is our worship in all its forms.
All prayer, spiritual reading, (which includes of course the bible), meditation, contemplation, and all the activities of our life, (wrote Thomas Merton), “are aimed at purity of heart; unconditional and total surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves, and our situation as willed by Him.”
At every response to God we make – (however meagre we think it is) – more of God’s Spirit purifies our love for Him, and opens up the door of vision to see Him.
Dev. And so we come to our second question;- ‘how do we see God?
For a start, we do not know what God looks like. And his glorious
Presence, so we are told, is too great for us to bear.
Dev. So if we are regularly ‘seeing’ God, (as our beatitude seems to imply), in what way will we ‘see’ him?
Well; some Christians use what is called the examin at the end of each day; by which they review their day – where it was good – where not so good; and in this way they talk the day over with God, and begin to realize what He was up to in them and through them that day.
Many say how the examin has changed their life as they have become more aware of God’s Presence and actions in them.
For them, this is a way of ‘seeing’ God.
Albert Einstein said that he reckoned God clothes himself in the coincidences of life – what some call the Coincidence of Accidents. And certainly, if you look out for them you don’t have to wait too long before you spot them.
I know that I see them most days!
One of the most spectacular ones for my wife Jenny and I was, that one day, (out of the blue), we suddenly decided, (for no apparent or particular reason), to go on a sentimental journey back to the diocese in which we were the most embedded – Gloucestershire.
We had warm feelings for the Bishop and his wife we served under, and felt at home with the clergy and diocesan staff.
Off we went, and ended at the Cathedral. The first person we saw was our old Archdeacon.
On asking why he was there, he said it was because they were about to have a memorial service in which they were going to inter the ashes of the Bishop we knew so well.
Amazed, that this could have coincidentally happened in this ‘out of the blue’ visit, we joined in, and were invited to the reception afterwards in the cloisters, where we met all our old friends and caught up on their news.
That coincident of accidents was mind blowing and also life-giving.
So watch out for them, they are happening all the time. And they are a way of ‘seeing’ God.
And then Austin Farrer, ( one of Oxford’s most distinguished past professors of theology ), believed that God is at work in all our lives and at every moment.
In everything that happens, God is taking a part in it. He is drawing us closer to himself at every second, always making situations better and more healthy for us and everyone else.
But God has a dilemma – he can never invade our free-will.
If he did, this world would not be as he created it to be, and he would become duty-bound to manipulate everything to his will, and we would be duty-bound to do whatever he tells us to do.
However, where we discern and ‘see” Him at work, we have the free-will choice of working with him or, of course, of not working with him.
And it is in discerning God at work in each and every situation and moment that we have yet another way of ‘seeing’ him.
Dev. There is a collection of texts, (written between the 4th and 15th
Centuries), called the Philokalia.
They were written by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In them we are told to trust our gut instincts, and the intuitions we get about what God is saying to us.
It says;- “That heart is pure, which, always presenting to God a formless and imageless memory, is ready to receive, (from God), nothing but impressions which come from God, and by which he is wont to desire to become manifest to that heart.”
Obviously, this is pretty opaque language. But what is being said is that if we give up all our ideas and mind pictures of what we think that God looks like and is in himself; and come to Him with a pure heart of love, God will show himself to us by giving to us impressions of his will and impressions of his Presence.
So let us trust our gut and ‘listen’ to our intuitions from God.
For here again, is another way that it can be said that we ‘see’ God.
It seems to me that this is how Jesus was aware of his heavenly Father Presence with him.
He gives no indication of any physical meeting up with the Father when he went out into the wilderness to pray – and I don’t think that we would expect it.
It feels to me that he was confident of his father’s love, and that his love for God was so blisteringly hot that is was both the foundation and superstructure of their relationship.
And therefore nothing else mattered.
Conc. Our problem is that we do not understand that this is an enchanted
world because through love, God created it, sustains it, and
continually works for its good.
Just as he created, and still continues to create us in his love. Which, of course, makes us enchanted people.
And our relationship with God is forged in love; for love of God and God’s love for us is all that matters.
And when we live as if that were true – our love for God is pure – not perfect, but pure, (because all real love is pure), and so how could we not “see” God!